My earlier excerpt on Cultural Studies as an anti-politics has attracted some attention. To balance things out, I should say that Cultural Studies hardly has a monopoly on anti-politics. Posthegemony‘s second chapter is a critique of the social scientific discourse of “civil society.” If Cultural Studies is populist, I suggest, then civil society theory is fundamentally neoliberal…
What then is eliminated in civil society theory’s, and neoliberalism’s, exclusion of culture from the state? The excluded culture is above all the matter of affect, passion, and the body. This is replaced by a statistical articulation, a hyper-articulacy. Affects are replaced by reasons (by Reason) as answers are demanded to the questions of management and state direction. Opinions are solicited and constructed in society’s constant self-interrogation, that contrasts so baldly with populism’s construction of a barely articulable ontology of affect. If populism is apolitical, it is a very different form of anti-politics than that of neoliberalism. Populism is an under-articulate disposition of the body, an incorporated common sense or habit, as opposed to neoliberalism’s over-articulate frame of mind, its ability to produce opinion. Neoliberalism excludes any affective sense of bodily location. It is not that populism, with its material, bodily grounding, is somehow more natural than neoliberalism. Neoliberalism enjoys a very similar aura of the natural, of transparency, as though it harnessed a spontaneous production of popular opinion, varnished with the sense of rightness that rationalization and reason bring. Moreover, as neoliberalism’s method is so in harmony with a whole range of social scientific methods and ideologies, it gains additional purchase in as much as its constitutive distortions mirror those of its social scientific observers.
A range of experiences and affects are processed by the state and through its ancillary mechanisms, of which perhaps the most important is civil society, to construct the realm of managerial reason. Normally this process can pass more or less unnoticed, but where the state is challenged by a counter-state and thus its double appears, the constituent force of this excluded affect reappears.
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Affect is visible with the crisis of the state. The extent to which social relations are structured in terms of affect rather than (or on another level from) discourse becomes clearer, and other logics of the social begin to emerge. But in the face of this disturbing fundamentalism, civil society theory aims to return a sense of rationality and agency to subaltern subjects: if traditional political models had assumed a vanguard role for intellectuals, who have then to bring the masses to conscientización, a focus on new social movements emphasizes rather the myriad negotiations and initiatives performed by subaltern subjects. No doubt this has been a progressive move, to counter the view that peasants (particularly) are formed by premodern communities bound by tradition and superstition, outside of history or politics. An emphasis on peasant agency and reason is a welcome corrective in this context. Yet at times it is almost as though subalterns were presented as perfect rational choice actors, conforming to the most ideal of Western liberal paradigms of reason. As Starn points out, presenting them as rational actors of this type deculturates and depoliticizes such agents by presenting them “as if they were outside culture and ideology” (“Maoism in the Andes” 405). The price subalterns pay is that their activities are recognized only so long as they accord to a notion of reason imposed upon them. (Can the subaltern act?) So long, that is, as efficiency and modernization continue to be the ground of civil society. Such actors then are to be ascribed agency, but only on the terms of the social theorist. Anything that cannot be interpreted within such a framework becomes invisible, the democratic task the substitution of a rational civil society for affective and cultural relations seen, from the perspective of the state, as distorting its managerial transparency. Most importantly, such a policy also necessarily involves a massive expansion of the sphere of the state, a wholesale elimination of culture and corruption as the sole politics.
It was perhaps for the sake of such an eliminatory program, such a single-minded prioritization of logical structure over affective relations, that Sendero Luminoso wreaked such havoc in Peru, its reason unleashing the fiercest of affects. We learn from Sendero the importance of affect in politics, as they bring us back to the relation between culture and the state, the impossibility of fixing a border between civil and political society. But surely the fundamentalism of a Sendero or an al-Qaida is not the only one imaginable. Could there be a fundamentalist program driven by vitality, affirmation, and life, rather than the death drive of mutual immolation? Another way of being multitude. Refusing the constrictions and anti-democratic democracy of civil society theory, it might be time to consider embracing the immediacy of social movements in their excessive and passionate demands. What would it mean to take on fanaticism (in a way that Sendero’s cult of reason manifestly does not)? Encore un effort. García Canclini asks how to be radical, without being fundamentalist. We might better ask: how to be fundamentalist, without being Sendero?